Ah the city life. Where your head is constantly filled with distractions and stimulation. When we escape the city and manage to turn down the noise on those rare occasions, we can feel just how much our urban lifestyles are stressing us out.
But now there is science to back up what we feel intuitively. In one study that focused on 20 different population groups and dates back all the way to 1985, it was found that psychiatric disorders are higher amongst urban dwellers. Living in the city is literally making us less sane.
But these days, even the simple country life isn' t so simple. One can live one's life surrounded by nature but still spend every day staring at a computer. For most of us who use computers every day, there is no escape from the Internet and its trappings.
But the city does present some other unique challenges to our health and sanity. How often, for example, when walking down a busy city street, do you hear someone else venting loudly on their cell phone? Is it really healthy to be surrounded by others' stress? Or what about the wailing of sirens? Or the sound of airplanes overhead?
We rarely consider the what our environments might be doing to us.
And living in the suburbs is no better. For many, the overriding issue in the suburbs becomes a life spent tethered to your car, shuttling from place to place. Yet we love the city. It's where everything happens. And many people can't fathom leaving the noise and haste. In actual fact, leaving the city isn't an option for most. The city is where most of jobs are. And whether we like it or not, we need a job.
This is why, now, more than ever, nature therapy is becoming more important. But, before you think, "Oh, I already do that," consider what you're actually doing. Are you strapping in a pair of earbuds for a run through the park? Are you hitting the highway early in the morning to get out to the mountain for a ski session?
Make no mistake, any kind of outdoor activity is great for you. But nature therapy is something different. It isn't some fitness fad. We typically conquer nature through our sports, while searching for the perfect Instagram shot. This proves how active and happy we apparently are. We do extreme kitesurfing, extreme mountain biking, extreme surfing, and extreme everything. But what about going out into nature with no agenda, not trying to accomplish anything?
This is the point of nature therapy -- simply being in nature. Or, as the Japanese say 'forest bathing.' It seems kind of silly doesn't it? Why should we waste time? Why go anywhere unless we're trying to accomplish something?
Without a well-defined checklist we fear that time will be wasted. But the truth is very different. Today, research is being done into the health benefits of spending time in nature. Not running in the park. Not skiiing. Not kitesurfing. Just being.
By listening, seeing, smelling, touching, and even tasting nature, we become well. Not very groundbreaking, you might think. On the rare occasion we accidentally do this, we can all attest to the benefits of nature. We simply feel good. It's Thoreau's Walden all over again.
But these days, actual scientists are researching how this good feeling we get from nature works. And most of this research comes from the nation of many arts: Japan.
The West certainly fetishizes Japan's integrated ways of being. The smash hit book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up attests to our love of all things quirky and meaningful from Japan. But there is a reason behind our fascination with this island nation. Their various arts actually work. Anyone who followed Marie Kondo's prescriptions for tidying up can attest to that.
And this year, a new book, The Japanese Art of Forest Bathing was released. But this isn't some trend, it's an eternal genre of well-being. Think evolution. It's that eternal.
And there is no better time than now for a revival of outdoor activities, or better yet doing nothing outdoors. Outdoor activity has dwindled massively in the past 3 decades. And, with the relentless growth of digital distractions, the average American is now spending 8 hours per day in front of a screen. It seems insane, but all you have to do is ride a bus or train and you'll see just how addicted we are to our screens.
So, what Zen-like science are the Japanese cooking up now? Let's take a look at what nature-therapy researchers are finding.
The Life-Changing Magic of Breathing Phytoncides
We believe ourselves, our science, our ways of life to be so advanced, so perfect. Now is better than the past, right? But we are utter cavemen when it comes to understanding what our bodies need most, based on our evolution.
Everywhere you turn, you can find a new study that shows that modern lifestyle itself is the sickness. Of course, we've gone so far that we can't turn back. But science is giving us the reasons to reverse our trends and spend time in nature.
Because we can't outsmart our own nature (which needs nature). Evolution demands its own reasons that our rational minds can't fathom... without proof that is. The breathing in and out of phytoncides is one of those quirks of evolution.
Here's the official Wikipedia definition of phytoncides:
"Phytoncides are antimicrobial allelochemic volatile organic compounds derived from plants. The word, which means "exterminated by the plant", was coined in 1928 by Dr. Boris P. Tokin, a Russian biochemist from Leningrad University. He found that some plants give off very active substances which prevent them from rotting or being eaten by some insects and animals."
Basically, trees and other plants emit these chemicals to protect themselves. They keep insects from eating them and stave off rotting.
But humans, who evolved outside (not in a climate controlled condo) have been breathing these chemicals since... forever. Through the relentless logic of evolution, these chemicals have become indispensable to us.
Qing Li, an immunologist at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, theorized about the benefits of phytoncides. He devised a brilliant experiment that removed all other forest variable to test the benefit of a single variable, phytoncides.
"Li sequestered 12 subjects in hotel rooms. In some rooms, he rigged a humidifier to vaporize stem oil from common Hinoki cypress trees; other rooms got nothing. The results? The cypress dwellers had a 20 percent increase in NK cells during their three-night stay and reported feeling less fatigued. The control group saw almost no changes."
No, NK cells doesn't refer to a secretive North Korean spy ring. So what are they and what do they do?
It turns out our bodies have natural defenses against disease and sickness. One of the most impactful of these defenses are NK cells:
"NK cells are handy to have around, since they send self-destruct messages to tumors and virus-infected cells. It’s been known for a long time that factors like stress, aging, and pesticides can reduce your NK count, at least temporarily. So, Li wondered, if nature reduces stress, could it also increase your NK cells and thereby help you fight infections and cancer?"
What if there was a medicine, free to all, that could increase our NK cells by 20%? There is, and it's called nature. But to get the benefit of nature, we have to actually be in nature. We need to get away from strictly treating nature as a medium to do something else. Nature itself is the key factor in providing the incredible benefits of nature.
You may float. You may meditate. You may run or workout at the gym. But hopefully this new research path will lead to the creation of a new expression: "Do you even nature, bro?"